About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
Halibut Hearts
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
The Great Sailor
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17

About the Book

Lili is a runaway. She’s left behind her native France to go in search of freedom, of adventure, of life. Her search takes her to Kodiak, Alaska, home to a ragtag community of fishermen, army vets and drifters who man the island’s fishing fleet. Despite her tiny frame, faltering English and lack of experience, Lili lands a job on board the Rebel, the only woman on the boat.

Out on the open sea, everything is heightened: colours are more vivid, sounds are louder and the work is harder than anything she's ever known. The terrifying intensity of the ocean is addictive to the point of danger. But Lili is not alone: in her fellow crewmembers she finds kindred spirits – men living on the edge, drawn to extremes.

Based on Catherine Poulain’s own experiences, and written in taut, muscular prose, Woman at Sea cuts through the noise of life and straight to the heart of our innermost longings.

About the Author

Catherine Poulain has lived on the road and on the sea for most of her life. Employed in fish farms in Iceland and as a farm worker in Canada, she also worked as a barmaid in Hong Kong and in naval shipyards in the US. She spent ten years fishing in Alaska before returning to France, where she was born. Woman at Sea is her first novel.

Adriana Hunter has translated some seventy books, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott-Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Véronique Olmi’s Bord de Mer (Beside the Sea), and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W, and has been shortlisted twice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. She lives in Kent, England.

Title page for Woman at Sea

O you singer, solitary, singing by yourself – projecting me;

O solitary me, listening – nevermore shall I cease perpetuating you;

Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,

Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,

Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there, in the night,

By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon,

The messenger there arous’d – the fire, the sweet hell within,

The unknown want, the destiny of me.

Walt Whitman

You should always be heading to Alaska. But getting there – what’s the point? I’ve packed my bag, it’s dark, then the day comes when I leave Manosque-les-Plateaux, Manosque-les-Sorrow. It’s February, the bars are no emptier, there’s smoke and beer. I’m leaving, I’m off to the ends of the earth, the limitless oceans, to glassy calm and raging peril, I’m leaving. I don’t want to die of boredom or beer or a stray bullet. Of misery. I’m leaving. You’re mad, they jeer – they always jeer. All alone on a boat with hordes of men, you’re mad, they laugh.

Go ahead. Laugh. Drink. Get wasted. Die if you like. Not me. I’m off to fish in Alaska. See ya.

I’ve left.

I’m going to cross the big country. In New York I feel like crying. I cry into my latte, then walk out. It’s still early. I walk along wide, deserted avenues. The April sky is very high, very clear between tower blocks that rear manically into the raw air. Small caravan stands sell coffee and cakes. Sitting on a bench opposite a glass building set aflame by the rising sun, I drink a large cup of insipid coffee and eat a huge muffin, a sugary face-sponge. And happiness gradually seeps back, a subtle lightness in my legs, an urge to pick myself up, to look round the street corner, and then further, to the next one … And I get up and walk. The city’s stirring, people appear, the giddy whirlwind begins. I launch myself into it till I’m exhausted.

I take the bus, a Greyhound bus with a racing dog on the side. I pay a hundred dollars to trace a route from one ocean to the other. We leave the city behind. I’ve bought cookies and apples. Hunkered down in my seat, I watch the succession of highways, the arteries of the beltway meeting, splitting, coming together again, cutting across each other and disappearing. It makes me travel-sick so I eat a cookie.

My only luggage is a small army bag. I covered it with precious fabrics and embroidered designs before leaving. Someone gave me a down anorak in a washed-out sky blue. I mend it all through the journey: feathers drift around me like clouds.

‘Where are you headed?’ I’m asked.


‘To do what?’

‘I’m going fishing.’

‘Have you done it before?’


‘Do you have a contact?’


‘God bless you.’

God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. Thank you, I say, thank you so much. I’m happy. I’m going fishing in Alaska.

We travel across deserts. The bus empties. I have two seats to myself – I can half lie down, my cheek pressed to the cold window. Wyoming is under snow. Nevada too. I eat cookies dunked in pale weak coffee at a rate dictated by the McDonald’s and rest stops along the way. I stitch away and disappear in the clouds from my anorak. Then it’s night again but I can’t sleep. Casinos flicker on either side of the road, glowing wheels of neon, luminous cowboys brandishing pistols blinking on and off. Overhead, the slenderest crescent moon. We pass Las Vegas. Not a tree; loose stones, scrub burned by the winter. The sky lights up quickly in the East. Almost before you sense it coming, the day has dawned. Ahead the road stretches out straight, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and then, all alone on the desert plateau, a railway track heading off towards the horizon, towards the morning. Or to nowhere at all. A straggle of doleful cows watch us go by. Perhaps they’re cold. And we stop again to have lunch, in a service station where chrome-heavy trucks stand with engines roaring. An American flag flutters in the wind, in front of a giant poster advertising beer.

I start to limp. I hobble uncomfortably in and out of the bus. God bless you, someone says, more concerned. There’s an old man who’s also lame. We make eye contact with something like recognition. In a roadside rest stop one night, tramps gather round me.

‘Are you a Chicana? You look like a Chicana, you look like my daughter,’ one of them says.

And we set off again. I’m a Chicana with my red cheeks, my blazing cheeks; a Chicana who limps and eats cookies in clouds of feathers while looking out at the darkness over the desert. A Chicana going fishing in Alaska.

I meet up with a fisherman friend in Seattle and he takes me onto his boat. Years he’s been waiting for me, there are pictures of me on the walls, the boat’s named after me. Later he cries. This great man who turned his back on me, now sobbing on his bunk. It’s dark outside, and raining. Maybe I should leave, I think.

‘Maybe I should leave,’ I whisper.

‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘you go now.’

It’s so cold and dark outside. He’s still crying and I am too.

Then he says sadly, ‘Maybe I should strangle you.’

I’m a little frightened. I look at his big hands, I can see he’s eyeing my neck.

‘But you’re not going to?’ I ask in a soft little voice.

No, maybe he won’t. Slowly I fill my bag. But still he says I should stay, stay just for tonight.

We take a ferry, he stares off to sea with his reddened eyes, not talking. I look out at the water, at his unreadable face, at my own hands as I rub them together, again and again. Then we walk through streets. He sees me to the airport. He’s ahead of me, I’m out of breath trying to keep up. He’s crying. And I cry along behind.

Halibut Hearts

It’s a glorious day in Anchorage. I wait behind a window. A Native man hovers around me. I’ve come to the ends of the earth. I’m frightened. Then I set off again in a tiny aeroplane. The stewardess serves us coffee and a cookie, and we head deep into the mist, disappearing into whiteness and blindness. Well, you asked for it, sweetheart, your ends of the earth. The island appears between two scrolls of fog – Kodiak. Dark forests, mountains, and the dirty brown earth emerging from beneath melted snow. I want to cry. I have to go fishing now.

I drink a coffee opposite a belligerent grizzly bear in the arrivals hall of the tiny airport. Men walk past, bags slung over their shoulders. Big-framed, their faces tanned, scarred. They don’t seem to see me. Outside, the white sky, the grey hills, seagulls, everywhere, endlessly flying past, mewing.

I call. I say, ‘Hello, I’m the woman who’s friends with the fisherman in Seattle. He said you were expecting my call, that I could stay with you for a few nights? Then I’ll find a boat.’

A man’s non-committal voice – he says a few words to someone. ‘Oh shit!’ I hear a woman’s voice reply. Welcome, Lili, I think. Welcome to Kodiak. Oh shit, she said.

A small, skinny woman climbs out of a pick-up, fine yellow hair, drawn face, pale thin unsmiling lips, porcelain-blue eyes. She drives, doesn’t say a word. We’re on a perfectly straight road between curtains of trees that open onto bare landscape. We drive along the coast, crossing fingers of water taut with frost.

‘You can sleep there.’ I’m shown a sofa in the living room.

‘Oh, thank you,’ I say.

‘We make nets for the fishermen. Purse seines. We know everyone in Kodiak. We’ll ask about work for you.’

‘Oh, thanks.’

‘So, anyway, take a seat, make yourself at home, the can’s here, bathroom there and kitchen here. When you’re hungry help yourself from the fridge.’

‘Oh, thanks.’

They forget about me. I sit in a corner, carving a piece of wood. Later I go out, I’d like to find my own shack. But it’s too cold. Brown earth and soiled snow, a grey sky over the bare mountains, so nearby. When I come back they’re eating. I sit on the sofa, waiting for it to be over, waiting for night-time when they’ll go to their room. Then I can unwind and maybe sleep.

I’m dropped off in town. I sit on a bench overlooking the harbour and eat popcorn. I count my money, the banknotes and the coins. I need to find work soon. A man calls to me from the dock. Under that white sky he looks as beautiful as an ancient statue outlined against the grey water. He has tattoos all the way up to his neck, under the dark curly mop of his rebellious hair.

‘I’m Nikephoros,’ he says. ‘How about you, where are you from?’

‘From a long way away,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve come to fish.’

He looks amazed. Wishes me good luck.

‘Maybe see you later?’ he suggests before crossing the street.

I watch him climb three bare cement steps on the pavement opposite, then open the door to an austere, square, wooden building – ‘B and B bar’ it says on the front – with large single-pane windows, one of which is cracked.

I get up, walk down the footbridge to the pontoon.

‘Are you looking for something?’ a bulky man calls to me from the deck of a boat.


‘Come aboard then!’

We drink a beer in the engine room. I daren’t speak. He’s kind and teaches me to tie three knots.

‘Now you can go fishing,’ he says. ‘But whatever you do, talk confidently when you go asking for work. Let the men around you know who they’re dealing with.’

He offers me another beer and I think of a smoke-filled bar from another life.

‘I have to go,’ I say quickly.

‘Come back whenever you like,’ he says. ‘If you see the boat moored up, don’t even think twice.’

I head off along the docks, asking from boat to boat, ‘You don’t need any help on board, do you?’

No one hears me, my words are snatched away on the wind. I have to keep repeating myself before getting a reply:

‘Have you fished before?’

‘No,’ I mumble.

‘Do you have papers? Green card, fishing licence?’


I get strange looks.

‘Try further along, you’ll find something,’ I’m told, still kindly.

I don’t find anything. I go back to sleep on my sofa, my stomach full to bursting with popcorn. I’m offered nannying work – minding children for a couple who are going fishing. It’s a terrible humiliation. I refuse with gentle obstinacy, lowering my head as I shake it from left to right. I ask where I can find basic accommodation but the replies are evasive so I go back and help my hosts make their nets.

And then I find something at last. I’m offered two crewing jobs on the same day: herring fishing along the coast on a seiner – or going out to sea for black cod on a longliner. I choose the second because longlining sounds better, because it will be tough and dangerous, and the crew will be made up of hardened seamen. The skipper, a lanky man called Ian, gives me the job and looks at me with a mixture of amazement and gentleness. He takes in my colourful bag and me standing in front of it, and says: Passion is beautiful. Then the softness in his eyes is gone.

‘You’ll have to prove yourself right away. We have three weeks to ready the boat, repair the lines and bait the longlines. Your only aim in life now will be to work for the Rebel, day and night.’

I want a boat to adopt me, I murmur into the windswept silence of the night.

We’ve been working for days in a damp lean-to, sitting at white iron tubs where the coiled longlines are kept. We repair the lines and replace damaged hooks and the missing gangions that connect the hooks to the line. I learn how to splice. Beside me a man works in silence. He arrived late, bleary-eyed. The skipper yelled. He smells of beer and is chewing tobacco. From time to time he spits into the irretrievably dirty cup in front of him. Jesús, sitting opposite me, smiles at me. Jesús is Mexican. He’s short and stocky, round bronzed face, apricot cheeks. A man emerges from an ill-lit room, followed by a very young, very fat woman. She’s Native. The man looks away sheepishly as he walks past.

‘Steve got lucky last night,’ sniggers the skipper.

‘If you call that getting lucky,’ the man next to me replies. Then without taking his eyes off his tub of line or even changing his tone, he says to me, ‘Thanks for the statue.’

I look at him perplexed. His face is serious but his dark eyes seem to be laughing.

‘I mean it’s a beautiful statue … Liberty. It was the French who gave it to us, right?’

The radio plays country music. Someone makes coffee and we drink it from cups perfunctorily wiped on a corner of clothing.

‘We need to remember to bring some water back in jerrycans,’ says John, tall and blond and very pale.

‘My name’s Wolf, just like a wolf,’ my neighbour says quietly.

He tells me he’s been fishing for fifteen years, that boats he’s been on have foundered and gone down three times, and he’ll have his own boat one day, maybe even at the end of this season, you know, if the fishing’s good, if he doesn’t do too much painting the town red. I don’t understand.

‘The town? Red?’

He laughs, and Jesús does too.

‘It means going out to get drunk.’

I wouldn’t mind going myself, to paint the town red. He can tell, and promises to take me, as soon as we’re back from fishing. Then he gives me a wad of tobacco.

‘Here, put it like this … against your gum.’

I’m happy. I daren’t spit so I swallow. It burns my stomach. You get nothing for nothing, I think.

Jesús walks me back in the evening. I’m frightened of the sea, he tells me, but I have to go fishing because my wife’s having a baby. You don’t earn enough at the canneries. And I really want to get out of the mobile home we share with a bunch of other people. Find an apartment just for the two of us and the baby.

‘I’m not afraid of dying at sea,’ I say.

‘Don’t say that, you shouldn’t talk like that, you must never say things like that.’

I think I’ve terrified him.

Ian, the lanky man, has invited me to his place, a house on the outskirts of town, lost in dark woods. The others exchange funny looks: they think the skipper’s going to get lucky this evening. His wife no longer lives with him, she was too bored in Alaska, she lives with their children in the sun, in Arizona. He’ll join them after the fishing season, when the house is sold. It’s already almost empty: there are just a few mattresses left in deserted bedrooms, a large red armchair – his armchair – facing a television set, a stove and a fridge, from which he takes two enormous steaks.

‘Eat, little sparrow, you’ll never make it otherwise.’

I leave three-quarters of my portion. He sends me back to the fridge of wonders where I find all sorts of ice creams. I lie on my corner of floor and look out of the window. Night over Alaska – and here I am, I think – with the wind, and the birds in the trees. Oh let it last, don’t let Immigration ever catch up with me.

Every evening my skipper rents a film to watch while we eat – steak for him, ice cream for me. He’s ensconced in his handsome red armchair, I sit on my mattress surrounded by cushions. Ian tells me stories, talking so much he doesn’t seem to breathe, carried away by what he’s saying, his face glowing. He has the long, sad face of a wronged teenager, but it comes alive and lights up at a remembered image or gesture. And then he laughs. He tells me about the beautiful boats he’s skippered, a very pretty one called the Tenacity that went down in huge seas in February, on the Bering Sea, off the Pribilof Islands, but not one of his men was lost. She went down because they were too heavily laden with crab (too heavily laden with crab or cocaine? Opinion is still divided in town). He laughs at himself, his lack of experience, before he’d joined Alcoholics Anonymous, when he drank so much he’d be dragged out of bars, often by the feet.

Days go by. The work is relentless. Sometimes Wolf and I go for lunch in Safeway, the big local supermarket. On the way back he talks some more about the boat he’ll have one day. He’s serious, not smiling now. He asks me to come on board as crew.

‘Yes, maybe, if you don’t hate me after the season,’ I say.

He also tells me about a girlfriend he loved and how she left him in the end. He’s had trouble sleeping ever since, he adds sadly.

‘All that wasted time,’ he says.

‘Yes,’ I reply.

Then he spits out his tobacco and says in a brighter voice, ‘You’ll need a fishing licence to work on board. That’s the law, there are frequent checks and the troopers won’t ever let you get away with anything.’

That evening we go into town together, to the hunting and fishing shop. The salesman hands me a form. He doesn’t seem to notice Wolf whispering to me, telling me my height in feet and inches, and a social security number he’s just dreamed up. I put a cross in the box marked ‘resident’. The man hands me my card.

‘There you are, you’re all set. That’s thirty dollars.’

We go down to the harbour and walk along the waterfront to the B and B. The stark panes of glass reflect the sky over the harbour. One of them is still cracked. A man is standing at the top of the steps, his hefty arms cradled around his torso, broad chest, pot belly, waders rolled down to his calves, a felt Stetson pushed down over his red hair. His belt buckle gleams. He greets us with a nod, grimaces a smile with his cigarette between his lips, steps aside to let us pass.

‘It stands for Beer and Booze,’ Wolf tells me as he opens the door.

Men are sitting with their backs to us, elbows on the wooden bar, heads slouched between their shoulders. We find a couple of stools. The waitress is singing as we come in, a strong clear voice rising above the cigarette smoke. Her heavy black hair falls almost to her waist. She makes quite a show of slewing the dark weight of it over her back as she turns around. Then she comes towards us, swinging her hips.

‘Hi, Joy,’ says Wolf. ‘We’ll have two beers.’

A big man has come over to Wolf. He’s holding a glass of spirits, vodka perhaps.

‘This is Karl, the Dane,’ Wolf tells me and then turns to him and says, ‘and this is Lili.’

Karl has yellow hair hastily tied into a stiff little ponytail, a big face marbled with red and heavy eyelids filtering the liquid blue of his Viking eyes.

‘We’re heading back out tomorrow. If everything’s OK,’ he says between two clicks of his tongue, his glass hovering at his lips. ‘We’re ready. The fishing should be good, if the gods are willing.’

Wolf nods. My beer glass is empty. In the shadows at the corner of the bar a red-haired woman drains her glass. She stands, goes round to the back of the counter and comes over to us. The waitress with the black hair takes her seat.

‘Thanks, Joy,’ says Wolf. ‘Same again with a little schnapps to go with it.’

‘Are they all called Joy?’ I ask quietly when she moves away.

‘No, not all. The first one’s Joy the Indian, this is Joy the Redhead, and there’s another one, Big Joy, she’s a very heavy lady.’

‘Aha,’ I say.

‘And when the three Joys go out drinking together, men steer well clear. They can go off for five days in a row when they’re on a bender. And they don’t take any prisoners.’

Karl’s tired. He finishes his drink, asks for another. Stands a round. Joy the Redhead puts a wooden counter next to my still-full glass.

‘I met a guy this evening,’ Karl drawls wearily, ‘just back from the South Pacific, he was fishing for shrimp. They work in shorts and T-shirts out there. Shorts, did you hear that? And he comes here for cod! They don’t know a thing, these little bastards. Working on the edge, they’ve never experienced it – working on the edge, that’s us, that’s just us, the North Pacific in winter, ice on the boat you have to break up with a baseball bat, and boats going down. We’re the only ones who know that!’

He gives a thunderous roar of laughter, choking briefly before calming down, then his face breaks into a beatific smile and his eyes glaze over.

‘So who’s this little thing?’ he asks, remembering me.

‘We work together,’ says Wolf. ‘She’s crewing on the Rebel for the black cod season. She doesn’t really look it but she’s tough.’

Karl gets to his feet unsteadily, puts two huge arms round my shoulders.

‘Welcome to Kodiak,’ he says.

Wolf pushes him away gently.

‘We’re off now. Don’t forget your wooden nickel, Lili. Keep it in your pocket, you’re entitled to a drink with that. There isn’t a man in the world better than him,’ Wolf says as we go outside, ‘but I didn’t want him to scare you. And don’t let anyone touch you, that’s respect.’

It’s dark outside now. We move to another even darker bar, the Ship. In the back room men play snooker on dilapidated tables under the white glare of old neon lights. A fat girl pulls on a bell rope as we walk in, and the men cheer.

‘We came at the right time,’ says Wolf. ‘A round for the whole house.’

We find ourselves some space in the scrum. Wolf is waking up, his eyes get brighter, his jaw tighter, his teeth gleaming in the half-light, two white canines.

‘This is the last frontier,’ he says in a half-whisper.

The waitress serves us two small glasses of colourless liquid.

‘It’s my own,’ she says.

Her red lipstick has bled into the fine lines above her upper lip, the blue eyeshadow on her crinkly eyelids leaps out from her wide white face with its heavy, tired features.

‘I’m Vicky,’ she says when Wolf introduces me. Then she adds, ‘This is a tough place. They’re not all angels dragging their boots around here. Watch out for yourself – if you have trouble, I’m here.’

We drink three glasses. Then we leave the dark bar: the friendly waitress, the rowdy men, the pictures of naked women above the snooker tables, their silky rounded haunches seeming to protrude from the dirty walls, the old Native women, drunk maybe, impassive, sitting in a line at the end of the bar, the semblance of a smile occasionally playing on the aloof set of their mouths.

At Breaker’s I’m asked for ID. I take out my fishing licence, but the waitress scowls.

‘Need a picture.’

I dig out my passport.

‘You now have the right to get drunk,’ says Wolf.

‘You know, if I’m lucky the boat will go down,’ I tell Ian one evening, ‘and you’ll all get out safely, except for me.’ Because I keep remembering Manosque-les-Sorrow, every day and every night. I don’t want it to get me.

‘You don’t have to die. Just stay in Alaska.’

‘Someone’s waiting for me.’

‘Don’t go,’ he says. ‘I’d like to take the Rebel for the crab season on the Bering Sea this winter, I don’t have my crew yet. If you prove yourself I could hire you.’

‘You’d hire me to go crab fishing?’

‘It’ll be very tough. The cold, the lack of sleep, working twenty hours a day or more … dangerous too. When rough seas hit and you got a thirty-foot sea, fog that confuses even the radars and then you risk running onto rocks, blocks of ice or another ship. But I think you’ll make it. You’ll love it, even, love it enough to accept the risk of dying.’

‘Oh yes,’ I murmur.

The tall black pines moan outside. Ian’s gone to bed upstairs and I fall asleep on the floor with the wind whistling in from the sea. I’m always first to wake, when the sky’s still dark over the trees. I get up and roll up my sleeping bag, then make coffee and fill a red thermos with it. I tiptoe upstairs, open the door to the bedroom where Ian sleeps, a bare room with a mattress on the floor. I don’t like waking him, but when I put the thermos by his bed, he opens one dark eye. I slip away.

‘I’m going to show you something I think you’ll like, an old film that a crew member left on the boat. He made it himself when he was fishing on the Cougar. It’s not exactly top quality but it’ll still give you an idea of what crab fishing’s like in bad weather. Well, bad weather …’

The house is quiet, the wind has dropped. Ian takes an old DVD from a cardboard box and puts it into the player. Every now and then a branch rubbing against the roof makes a sound like wing beats, the furtive slither of a bird blown off-course. Ian turns out the light and sits back down in his red armchair; I hug my knees to my chest. We stare at the screen in the dark: at first there are only streaks of white that hurt our eyes, then the roll of the black ocean, the slow rhythm of the swell. The horizon pitches violently and we see the rail and the shining decks with sprays of water spattering over them. Droplets splash onto the lens. It’s night-time. Faceless men move in the glare of sodium lights, dark shapes only partially lit up thanks to their orange rain gear. A streaming crab pot looms out of the water, and because the boat and these men are surrounded by dark foreboding depths, it looks like a monster from the abyss. The water opens and closes like a voracious mouth. The pot is raised into a ravaged sky, hanging from a cable, swinging heavily. The blunt mass of it appears to hover a moment before coming down, swaying between the deck and the water. Two men at the rail, slight supple figures, guide it towards a steel support that they’ve just raised into position. The crabs spew out of its gaping jaws, seething when a crewman lifts open the door and tips them into a tub, his body half inside the pot. He’s holding a box of bait, unhooks the old one, slings it onto the deck, attaches the new one, comes back out, flips the door shut, the men at the rail retie the straps, and the crane is hoisted up until the pot tips overboard. The whole thing lasts less than a minute.

There’s an intangible cadence and rhythm to this dark, silent, almost flowing choreography. Yes, that’s it, the men are dancing on the wave-pummelled deck. Each knows his place and the part he plays. One steps aside with a lithe entrechat to avoid being struck by the pot, another leaps; their legs are springs, their bodies instinctually know how to guide this brainless force, this threatening pot, a black entity that has reared up from the depths, its eight hundred blind, brutal pounds swinging across the opaque sky. And all around them, the magma of the ocean keeps up its swell.

The scene changes, I’ve almost stopped breathing. It’s now daytime, the sea is calm and the boat surrounded by pure light, blue light, beaming from the horizon. The bow ploughs through fragments of ice.

‘This was more dangerous than the weather before,’ Ian says, making me jump. ‘The Cougar lost ten crab pots that day because they got caught in the frozen seas.’

‘Yes,’ I say, exhaling, ‘yes …’

‘And it was cold too, very cold, the whole boat was covered in frozen sea spray, pots, rails, wheelhouse, a crust of it getting thicker and thicker. The Cougar swollen with ice, unrecognisable.’

I catch sight of a face so flushed it looks burned, a bushy beard on which condensation or phlegm has turned to ice. The film ends with the dark waves rolling against a black background. It feels as if the whole story will start again: the men on deck, the steel monster opening its jaws to reveal seething crabs, the ocean … But the screen’s suddenly empty.

We sit in silence. Then Ian gets up to put the light back on, stretches and yawns.

‘Did you like it?’

‘What if I made out I was dead?’ I ask him the following evening. ‘You write to France, tell them I drowned.’

He frowns, he’s had enough of my ideas.

‘Don’t you see how much pain that would cause?’

‘Oh, well, a bit, of course. They’d cry, they’d think it must have been very cold when I went in, and then one fine day they’d be OK. They’d say I kind of had it coming. I’d have given them an adventurous death, and at least I’d be sorted, they could stop worrying about me. No one would ever expect me back.’

He doesn’t even want to hear any more of this. He tells me I’m a coward and goes off to bed. I lie down on my mattress, laughing to myself. Maybe Immigration won’t get me.

Wolf leaves, the young sea wolf. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I look away.

‘I’m off to Dutch Harbor,’ he says. ‘I’m going to find myself a different boat. Somewhere else.’

He smiles at me kindly.

‘You’re on a good boat,’ he adds, but then his face hardens. ‘I didn’t like what the skipper said when I was measuring the line, claiming my arm-span wouldn’t make a fathom. He did it deliberately, making a jackass of me in front of the others. I won’t forgive that. I’m a good fisherman, I have more longlining experience than him. I need to get out.’

These last words were spat out furiously through clamped jaws.

‘Yes,’ I reply.

He gives a short sad laugh and his eyes gaze off into the distance as if he’s already left the land behind.

‘Here one day, there the next,’ he says more softly. ‘You never know where you’ll be tomorrow. Leaving doesn’t matter, you know, it’s what life wants for us. You always have to make a break for it. When you gotta go, you gotta go. But we’ll paint the town red again next time we meet. In three months, ten months or twenty years, it’s all the same. In the meantime you take care. Take care of yourself.’

One last hug. He picks up his bag and slings it across his shoulders. I watch him disappear along the road, a strange figure swallowed in the mist.

The house is sold. The lanky man is going off to fetch the Rebel, which is being serviced in a boatyard on the neighbouring island.

‘She’s the most beautiful, you’ll see,’ he tells me the evening before he sets out. ‘I’ll be back in two days. Till then you can sleep on the Blue Beauty. It’s our owner Andy’s favourite boat, he’s going to run it for the cod season. I’ll take you there tomorrow before I catch the ferry to Homer.’

The harbour’s deserted. Ice-white birds sweep across the sky and a tug heads in through the first line of buoys. Still far away, its engine’s thrum is barely audible. I have a handsome pair of boots found at the Salvation Army, old black ones, not like the real ones that are green and expensive. My footsteps resound on the wooden pontoon.

‘Careful, you’ll slip with the crap you’ve got on your feet.’

I protest and almost fall. He just manages to catch me.

‘You’re going to earn a whole bunch of cash, you can buy all the boots you want.’

‘Oh, I just … Just need enough to buy a good sleeping bag, some walking shoes, and have something left over to see me through to Point Barrow.’

‘Point Barrow? Now what are you talking about?’

‘I’m going to Point Barrow when the season’s over.’

‘What the hell do you want to do there?’

I don’t answer. A young seagull on the rail of a seiner watches us walk past.

‘Do you think I’ll make a good fisherman?’ I ask.

‘We see them every day, people coming from deep in the States, they’ve only ever seen woods, wide-open prairies or mountains, and they give everything up to come here. Guys or girls who’ve been sales reps, truck drivers or farmhands. Maybe even call girls, what do I know. They all come aboard. They get treated like shit when they’re green, when they don’t know anything about anything, and then one day they have their own boat.’

‘I’ll be needing a real sailor’s bag then, like the others.’

‘For sure. I can picture you already, duffel bag on your shoulder, walking the docks from Kodiak to Dutch to find a boat.’

On our left is a sky-blue boat, the Blue Beauty. The deck’s deserted and construction work is still going on: sheets of aluminium that will form the awning, with metal uprights on either side. We climb aboard, there’s a smell of wet rubber and diesel. Ian throws my bag onto a bunk in a dark cubbyhole, the crew’s sleeping cabin. When we come back out, I climb over the rail and Ian wants to help me step down onto the dock. I shake him off with a flick of my elbow. I’ll be a real fisherman soon, I already have my bunk and I chew tobacco.

The Rebel comes into harbour. She really is the most beautiful, the lanky man was right. The black steel hull has a dazzling yellow stripe around it. The wheelhouse is white. I’m the first crew member to visit, after Jesse the grease-monkey who came back with her, and Simon, a young, blond-haired student – just arrived from California – who’d been looking for a crewing job along the docks in Homer. The skipper’s settled himself in the deep chair in the wheelhouse, facing the multitude of dials. The semicircular row of windows gives us a view over the whole harbour.

‘This is my seat from now on,’ says Ian, ‘but you guys will get to share it when you’re on watch.’

The engine’s running, it won’t stop now for several weeks. I watch the harbour come to life. I’ve moved my stuff into the cramped space, the crew’s cabin, on the first of four bunk-beds.

‘First come, first served,’ says the skipper who said I was welcome to sleep in his bunk, because he has his own cabin. I declined.

I’ve been given a blue bike, a rusty old bike that’s too small for me. It has the words FREE SPIRIT on it. I ride across town, crimson-cheeked, in rain gear that’s more orange than orange, more orange than all the real rain gear out at sea. People laugh as I go past, and I pedal from the boat to the workshop, the workshop to the boat. Rain trickles over my face and down my neck. I run across to the boat, climb down the ladder four rungs at a time, grab hold of the handrail, the grey-green water below me. The skipper’s worried, he reaches out an arm – he can’t help himself – but manages to withdraw it with a gulp.

‘I haven’t fallen yet,’ I laugh, eyeballing him. ‘I’m invincible.’

He looks away quickly.

‘You’ll die just like everyone else,’ he says with a shrug.

‘Yes. Right up until I die, I’m invincible.’

I get up at first light and jump down from my bunk. It’s calling me: the outside, the whiff of seaweed and shells, the crows on deck, the eagles on the mast, the seagulls’ cries over the smooth waters in the harbour. I make coffee for the two men, then head out and run along the docks. The streets are deserted but I’m out there meeting the new day, reacquainting myself with yesterday’s world. The night concealed it, then handed it back. I return to the boat out of breath to find Jesse and Ian just stirring. The other crew members will be here soon. I drink coffee with these two, but they’re so slow. My foot twitches under the table. I could weep with impatience. Waiting is painful.

The whole harbour has gone to work. The radio is on full blast on the cluttered decks, country songs mingling with Tina Turner’s husky voice. We’ve started baiting the lines. There are constant comings and goings along the docks. We haul aboard cases of frozen squid and herring that we’ll use as bait. Students who’ve travelled far and are hoping to find a boat come looking for a day’s work.

‘We’re full up,’ says the lanky man.

Simon the student studies us all coolly but his eyes light up with panic at the first bark of anger from the skipper. Jesús’s cousin Luis will be joining us. And David, a crab fisherman who surveys us from his lofty six foot three, his great shoulders spread wide. He grins broadly to reveal regular white teeth.

We spend days on end baiting, standing at a table at the back of the deck. Jesús and I laugh about everything.

‘Stop being so childish,’ John says irritably.

The lion man arrives. He climbs aboard one morning accompanied by the lanky man. He hides his face in a dirty mane of hair. The skipper’s proud of his man.

‘This is Jude,’ he says, ‘an experienced longliner.’

A big drinker too perhaps, I think when he walks past me. This tired lion is on the shy side. He sets to work without a word and later succumbs to a violent coughing fit when he lights a cigarette. He spits on the ground and I catch glimpses of his face obscured by a beard. Piercing gold eyes. I avoid his tawny gaze. I’m not laughing with Jesús now but making myself small, unobtrusive. He belongs here. I don’t.

Late in the evening the guys go home but Jude stays on board. There are just three of us left on deck. We need to take the tubs of baited lines to the freezer in the factory. We load the tubs into the back of the truck and tie them down securely. I step aside as soon as Jude comes over. He frowns. We drive through the evening air to the canning factory. Sitting between the two men, I look out at the sea and the straight road between bare hills. We’re heading towards the open sky. The skipper changes gear with the tips of his fingers to avoid brushing me with his hand, I huddle further to the right. I can feel the lion man’s thigh next to mine. My throat constricts.

We unload the gear. The tubs are ice-cold and heavy.

‘Tough girl,’ Jude says.

‘Yes, not much of her but she’s strong,’ Ian replies.

I stand taller. We work in a chain, passing the tubs along into the freezing cold room. Our fingers stick to the metal. It’s late when we drive away, and as the truck trundles through the night the hills are swallowed up by darkness. Only the sea is still there. The two men talk about putting to sea. I stay silent. I’m aware of aches all over my body, of hunger, the warmth of Jude’s thigh, the smell of his tobacco, and of our damp clothes with scraps of squid still stuck to them.

We follow the coastline. A few trawlers are asleep against the dock where we usually fill up with fuel. We drive on past their dark slumbers. Up ahead the horizon is dotted with rings of reddish light pulsating in the inky sky.

‘Is that the Northern Lights?’ I ask.

They don’t understand. I say it several times. The lion laughs quietly, a husky muted rumbling.

‘She said Northern Lights!’

The skipper laughs too.

‘No, it’s just the sky.’

I’ve flushed redder than those lights whose name I’ll never know. I wish this could go on forever, travelling through the darkness between the lanky man and the burned-out lion.

‘Drop me at the Shelikof,’ Jude says when we come into town.

He’s leaving us to go off to a tavern already. Ian doesn’t hold it against him.

‘I think he drinks quite a lot,’ he says, ‘but he’s the man we need.’

We go back to the boat. It’s warm on board. Jesse’s smoking a joint in the engine room.

Adam is a crew member on the Blue Beauty, moored alongside us. I hear him joking with Dave.

‘Yeah, and when your hands hurt so much you can’t even sleep for the three hours you’ve been given. And when you’re on watch and you see buoys all over the place – you can rub your eyes as much as you like, those buoys just keep popping up.’

They laugh.

‘Do you think I’ll make it?’ I ask Adam.

‘Keep working the way you are and that’ll do.’

But another time he warns me to watch out for danger.

‘What exactly should I be worried about?’

‘Everything. Lines hurtling into the water so fast they take you with them if you get a foot or an arm caught up, and the ones we haul back in that could kill you or maim you if they break. Hooks that get caught in the reel and are flung out at random, bad weather and miscalculated reefs, a crew member who falls asleep on watch, falling into the water, a wave that sweeps you away, the cold that can kill you …’

He stops. His washed-out eyes look sad and weary. His features are losing their shape, sagging.

‘Coming on board is like being married to the boat for as long as you work on her. You don’t have a life, or anything of your own no more. You have to obey the skipper. Even if he’s a dick.’ He sighs, then shakes his head as he goes on. ‘I don’t know why I came, I don’t know what makes us want to suffer that much. And for what? Nothing, at the end of the day. Never enough of anything – sleep, heat, or love either, till you can’t take any more, till you hate the job, and then in spite of everything you come back for more because the rest of the world feels bland, it’s so boring it drives you crazy. In the end you can’t get by without this, the intoxication of it, the danger, the madness – yup!’ He’s almost roaring now but calms himself. ‘You know, there are campaigns these days to discourage young people from fishing.’

‘Because they won’t find work?’

‘Mainly because it’s dangerous.’

He looks away, stares into the distance. His thin hair flitters in a gust of wind. The corners of his mouth have a bitter, downturned twist. A dreamy gentleness softens his features as he gazes blankly ahead and adds, ‘But this time it’s over … it’s really over. I have a little house on the Kenai Peninsula, in the forest, near Seward. I should earn enough with this cod season to go back there. And to stay for good this time. I’ll be there before the winter. I want to build a second house. I’m never setting foot here again. I’ve given enough of my life to it. Come and see me in the woods one day when you’re tired,’ he says, turning to look at me.

He goes back to baiting the hooks. Dave and I exchange a look.

‘He always says that,’ Dave says, nodding. ‘Then he comes back.’

‘Why does he come back?’

‘All alone in the woods. Time goes slowly after a while. What Adam needs is a woman.’

‘There aren’t many around here.’

‘No, not any more,’ he laughs. ‘But when he’s fishing he doesn’t have time to think about that. And so many of them are on their own here that it doesn’t feel as bad.’

‘And does he go to the bars when he’s ashore?’

‘He’s had his fair share of drink – he quit two years ago. Alcoholics Anonymous. Like Ian, our skipper.’

‘That’s not much fun, then,’ I murmur.

‘And soon they’ll all be after you, all these single men. The hunt will be on,’ he winks at me. ‘Except for me. I can’t now. I have a girlfriend, I don’t want to lose her.’

The lanky man’s driving the truck and talking like an excited child. I listen and keep saying, Yes, oh yes. When he parks up facing the docks, by the B and B, we get out and head to the boat, and I just come out with, ‘Let’s get drunk, man,’ those exact words, in English. I’m learning the language quickly. He spins round in amazement, as if he doesn’t recognise me.

‘Oh, I didn’t mean it, I was just joking,’ I gabble, shrugging.

One day he says he loves me and gives me a bit of mammoth tusk that he’s had for a very long time.

‘Oh, thank you,’ I say.

We move the Rebel to the docks next to the factories and lug on board the tubs and stocks of frozen squid. We’ve filled up with water and ice. I stare wide-eyed at the mountain of provisions, dozens of boxes delivered right to the pontoon by Safeway. The guys bring their gear aboard.

‘But there are only six bunks … there are nine of us,’ I say to the Skipper.

‘The boat’s big enough for all of us.’

I don’t pursue it. He shouts the whole time at the moment.

We leave Kodiak on a Friday. Never leave on Friday, they say. But the lanky man sneers, he’s not superstitious. Jesse, the mechanic, laughs too.

‘It’s like green boats,’ he says, ‘hokum.’

Still, on the dock earlier Adam warned me, ‘Superstition’s ridiculous, I’m OK with that, but I’ve seen too many green boats drift towards the shore when no one could explain why, and they hit a rock and go down to the bottom with the whole crew on board. You see, green’s the colour of trees and grass, it’s gonna draw you back to land. And leaving on a Friday’s not good either. We’ll be waiting till one minute past midnight.’

The men whoop as they untie the mooring lines. My throat feels tight. Whatever happens don’t get in the way. I make myself scarce and finish lining up the tubs on deck. Simon’s running around with his eyes popping out of his head. He doesn’t understand anything either. He barges past me, almost falls onto the deck as he labours up the metal ladder to the gangway with a rope as thick as his wrist rolled up over his shoulder. I coil up the mooring line that Dave threw down when he untied the bow. The skipper bellows. Even so I brace myself and try to drag the hawser God knows where, to the crate on the flying bridge perhaps. It’s too heavy. Ian bellows again.

‘I can’t do it, I don’t understand,’ I stammer.

He softens.

‘Well, tie it up behind the wheelhouse.’

I feel like laughing, or crying. We leave land at last, and I already know I’ll never be the same again. The boat heads due south, hugging the coast before turning west.

The lion’s gone to bed and is already asleep. Jesús goes to lie down too.

‘They’re right,’ says Dave, appearing from the wheelhouse, ‘have to sleep as much as you can, you never know what’s coming next.’

But when I go down to the cabin the four bunks are taken. My sleeping bag’s been dumped on the floor. John’s snoring on my bunk. I go up on deck and find Simon looking out to sea. He turns a glowing, awed face towards me.

‘So here I am on the ocean,’ he murmurs.

‘They’ve taken my bunk,’ I say.

‘I don’t have one either.’

I go back below deck. I pick up my sleeping bag and kneel down in a corner of the passageway. The lion man has woken. He sits up and runs three fingers through his stiff curls. His eyes come to rest on me.

‘Where am I going to sleep?’ I ask feebly, clutching my sleeping bag.

He looks at me kindly.

‘I don’t know,’ he says gently.

I get to my feet and go up to see the skipper, the lanky man sitting at his banks of dials. I still have my sleeping bag in my arms, hugging it to me.

‘Where am I going to sleep? You said it was first come, first served, and I really was first, you said that was the law on boats.’

I don’t say any more. He’s gazing into the distance. The sky is darkening over the mountains of Ketchikan in the west.

‘I don’t know where you’ll sleep,’ he says eventually, his voice quiet. ‘I did offer you my cabin, you didn’t want that. But there’s room on the boat. Given how little we’ll be sleeping, anyway … Leave your sleeping bag behind my chair if you like.’

I stow it there and climb back down from the wheelhouse. Luis is lying on the bench seat in the galley. I join Simon back on deck. He offers me a cigarette and we watch the sea in silence. The wind picks up as we get further from land. The coast is already just a dark strip, growing ever smaller. The Rebel hits some swell and starts listing slightly. The colour drains from Simon’s face. We go down to the galley and Luis makes room for us on the bench seat. It’s night outside. We sit waiting under the neon light.

The guys wake up and we all have to try on our survival suits. Jude has made a meal and takes a laden plateful of pasta up to the skipper, who hasn’t left the helm. They come back down together.

‘Take the helm for a moment, Dave?’ he asks and pours himself some coffee.

‘This evening, boys, sleep,’ he says, his words curt. ‘You’re going to need your strength. Up and out at five tomorrow.’